restricted access Teasing Out Clues, Not Kooks: The Man Nobody Knows and Ben-Hur
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Teasing Out Clues, Not Kooks
The Man Nobody Knows and Ben-Hur

Fan mail research has made significant strides in the last decade. Having grown alert, however, to the provenance of mail caches, researchers who consult letters of long ago face a brainteaser: as we acknowledge cache collectors’ effect on the mail that we can examine, we must wonder if our findings reveal more of the mail’s recipient than of fans who sent the mail. A neat way to address this puzzle is to tease out concerns so sensitive that letter writers found them hard to avow or even admit to themselves. This recourse prioritizes clues so small that there is scant cause to suppose they were noticed by a given cache maker. Adding heft to this approach can be a search for clues so scattered that they require study of letters in more than one cache.1 None of this sounds pertinent to The Man Nobody Knows (1925). However, the 300-plus letters that Bruce Barton saved about his best seller turn out to yield clues so small they were missed by earlier researchers who consulted this cache. What those researchers emphasize is well worth knowing: although some readers enthused about Barton’s energetic and ally-attracting Jesus of Nazareth, others disliked his hail-fellow exemplification of managerial precepts that, effectively, boost capitalism. Broached delicately in contrast, in this cache, is interest in Jesus’ Jewishness. The fullest indication of this interest is [End Page 9] found in a note sent from Aberdeen, Mississippi. A researcher with limited respect for fans could dismiss this note on the grounds that inept typing and spelling errors reveal lack of intelligence, thought, or care. Too, the decision to consult Barton could seem foolish, since he was an advertising executive with no formal training to answer such questions as, “Can you inform me what nationality Christ belonged to. Was he Jew? Was his Mother a jewes [sic]?”2 However, by learning to tease out small clues, students of fan mail can secure insights that others have passed by.

If the charge that insights have been missed by researchers with limited respect for fans sounds like a straw man, evidence to the contrary is the scholarship that keeps alive a notion that ardent enthusiasts are kooks rather than analysts’ best, and sometimes unique, guides to aspects of reception. Trying to quash that notion in 2007, with specific reference to readers who liked Man, Erin A. Smith emphasized Barton’s ability to offer a certain kind of seeker a “practical, popular religion.” Though she went too far in the direction of celebrating fans uncritically, she was right to stand up to Edrene S. Montgomery’s charge, twenty years earlier, that Man fans were duped by a pitchman’s illusion.3 Combating this indictment of the Jesus whom a fan in South Carolina found “so real, so near, and so lovable” is the note from Mississippi that takes an interrogative attitude. Its questions are not best served, however, by Smith’s attention to “lived religion.” Though that tool could shed light on Judaism, the note’s question about Jewishness—articulated in terms of nationality—is better served by Joke Hermes’s observation that “consumption of popular culture . . . entails the production of hopes, fantasies, and utopias” that do not just reflect but also inform civic identities owing to how avidly fans deploy favorite films, sports, and other media as “a means of bonding and of reflecting on [bonding], sometimes critically and inventively, sometimes uncritically or by discriminating against those perceived as belonging to other groups.”4 So full an articulation reminds analysts that we cannot tell from the Mississippian’s questions what he wanted to hear; that is, he may have favored a Jewish Jesus. Declarative in contrast is a letter from St. Paul, Minnesota. This letter compares Barton’s Jesus to the one in Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880).

This letter lies ahead. Be it noted now that it is not the only one that compares Man to another book; for example, a mortician compared Man to Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (1897). The St. Paul fan’s comparison is...